If Noah Hoffman had to pick a stand-out moment from the Winter Olympics so far, the Olympic cross-country skier said he would have to start with walking out at the March of Nations during the Opening Ceremony.
“They had turned the stands into one giant screen with these LED lights next to everybody’s seats, and so literally, you walk in, and the entire stadium is an American flag, and it says ‘United States of America’ in the biggest letters you’ve ever seen, like the size of football stadium stands,” marveled Hoffman, whose participation in Pyeongchang marks his second time competing in the Winter Olympics.
“I distinctly remember the same exact moment from Sochi, walking into that stadium — the noise and the color and the excitement, and being there with the team. How can you not go into that moment as an Olympian and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what it means to be an Olympian?’”
Hoffman, who’s originally from Aspen, Colo., didn’t just go to the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang as a representative of the United States. He also went as a representative of the tribe.
In South Korea, a country oddly known for having a copy of the Talmud in every home, Jewish athletes from around the world competed at the Winter Olympics in skiing, figure skating, luge, snowboarding, speed skating, skeleton and short track speed racing.
For Hoffman, cross-country skiing and Judaism have something in common: a strong sense of community.
“Supporting each other and supporting the community is really important to the Jewish community, and it’s a big part of athletics in general and the cross-country skiing community in particular,” he said. “It feels like a tight-knit network that is really founded on supporting each other, and that’s one important connection that I make between the two.”
The biggest Jewish story at the Winter Olympics this year is the size of the Israeli delegation. With 10 athletes competing in figure skating, alpine skiing, short track speed racing and skeleton, Israel doubled its largest previous delegation at Sochi.
More than 60 percent of Israel is desert, so winter sports are not exactly the country’s strength. Many of its Winter Olympic delegation members come from other countries or have at least trained abroad.
Seven of those members, including three Americans, competed as a figure skating team. The team, which scored eighth place out of 10 teams — ahead of France and Korea — during the short program on Feb. 11, failed to qualify for the finals.
Alexei Bychenko, who led the figure skating team, skated to “Hava Nagila” and placed second in the men’s short program in the group skate competition.
Other members of the team include Paige Conners from Rochester, N.Y., Adel Tankova from Hackensack, N.J., and Aimee Buchanan from Boston via Dallas.
A.J. Edelman, also from the United States — specifically a suburb outside of Boston — is competing as Israel’s first athlete in skeleton, a sport where a person rides a small sled down a frozen track while lying down. Edelman, an Orthodox Jew who refers to himself as the “Hebrew Hammer,” told the Forward that he wants to challenge stereotypes about Jews and sports.
“Sports bring people together in every society around the globe,” Maccabi USA Executive Director David Snyder said. “It’s why there are international sporting events all the time — golf, soccer, tennis. It brings people together, and there’s no better example than the Summer/Winter Olympics. It’s an opportunity to put politics aside and remind ourselves that we’re all one people.”
Snyder said that he’s keeping an eye on Itamar Biran, who is representing Israel in alpine skiing.
Jews are representing countries outside of Israel, of course, including the United States and Great Britain.
Besides Hoffman, Jews in the U.S. delegation include Jared Goldberg, an alpine skier from Salt Lake City, Utah;
Arielle Gold, a snowboarder from Steamboat Springs, Colo.; Emery Lehman, a long track speed skater from Oak Park, Ill.; and Tyler Kornfield, a cross-country skier from Anchorage, Alaska. Jason Brown, an alternate figure skater from Los Angeles, is also Jewish.
British luger Adam Rosen, originally from New Rochelle, N.Y., is also Jewish. He placed 22nd and failed to qualify for the final run.
Jewish representation at sporting competitions is not high, but when Hoffman encounters another M.O.T. at the Olympics, this identity provides them with something to bond over.
“Life in general is about community and shared experiences,” he said. “Having many different communities is a privilege, and the Jewish community is a huge part of that. I feel so lucky to be a part of so many things that are bigger than myself.”